Monday, February 8, 2010

Man Hunt (1941)

I gotta get this nitpick out of the way, before I talk about the movie. Why is that Walter Pidgeon can always play British? He is Canadian. He has no English accent. He doesn't look particularly British. This is the third or fourth movie I've seen him in where everyone just runs around saying "old man" and "cheerio" and no one bats an eye. It's just odd. Having said that though, I really like Walter Pidgeon anyway. He's a dreamboat who can act. He's obscure (By which I mean that most people today haven't heard of him). He needs only that blood red passport to ascend to my League of Obscure British Actors. I feel like walking up to the TV when he's on, banging on it and yelling, "be more British!"

To further add to the confusion genuinely British George Sanders is playing a bemonocled Nazi in Man Hunt. What is crazy is how good Sanders is at speaking German, in the movie. He may be the best fake Nazi ever. And he's apparently a Nazi for aesthetic reasons. He just likes their style and he finds their straight-forward use of violence to get their way refreshingly honest. Yeah, I guess that's one way of rationalizing your effed up political view point: we are nasty, murderous bullies, but at least we're honest about it. And then he lays some social Darwinism on you that is so '38. I guess George Sanders could never play a character who wasn't motivated at least partly by aesthetic concerns. That's just who he is. Even in Foreign Correspondent his patriotism seems secondary to wanting to wipe the smile off that Smug Bastard, Herbert Marshall's face. Afterall being the smug bastard is his job.

I might add that American Joan Bennett is here playing a cockney "seamstress" with a heart of gold (the original script had her as a prostitute, which is evident from lots of references that censors failed to excise). Her accent is the best argument for not even trying. So to recap: we have a Canadian playing a Brit but not even trying the accent, a Brit playing a German who can speak the Deutsch real good but doesn't bother with a German accent when he's speaking English and a painfully bad American take on Cockney. If this movie weren't so darn good for about half a dozen reasons, I'd say it was worth watching only for the campy language fail.

The story follows Pidgeon as he stalks through the underbrush of the Bavarian Alp's taking aim at his prey, Adolf Hitler. He shoots the gun and nothing happens. His rifle is unloaded, deliberately so. He seems satisfied and he's about to leave when an idea occurs to him that, hey this Hitler. I should really nix my "no killing" rule just this one time. He loads his rifle and is about to shoot when he's spotted by a guard. After being beaten, and questioned the Nazi's "release" him, (well they throw him off of a cliff....tomato, tomah-toe). The rest of the movie is Pidgeon being chased around foggy sets while trying not to take Joan Bennett up on her offers of all the free "seamstressing" he might require by pretending that she's his kid sister or something. There is a lot of forehead kissing. Pidgeon manages a few moments of breeziness when he introduces his seamstress friend to his stuffy family, and eating fish and chips in her tiny apartment. I wish that I'd seen this movie 20 years ago when I living in a ratty bedsit in London. I would have pretended I was bringing fish and chips home to Walter Pidgeon every day.

Director Fritz Lang keeps the tension up, employing the visual language of his German Expressionism for this tight thriller that explores the nature of the hunt and the hunted, violence and the futility of pacifism. I don't really get into analyzing camera angles and stuff too much, but there are some great ones in here. There is a chase sequence through a dark tube station that I'm pretty sure was the inspiration for similar scenes in Charade. The ending of this movie really surprised me. The whole movie is darker than earlier chase films, like the 39 Steps. There is nothing of the travelogue, feeling here and the rom com moments between Pidgeon and Bennett fade pretty quickly. It's almost like the director, himself an exile from Germany (and one famous for his monocle wearing, at that) had a dim view of human nature or something.

Thanks to Lolita for the screencap!


Lolita said...

Haha, your welcome! I must confess that I hadn't considered the whole Pidgeon-playing-Brits-all-the-time, but it's true! I wonder why he was frequently cast in roles like that?

SteveQ said...

I think in the back of someone's mind was "pidgin English!"

Jennythenipper said...

Ha, Steve you're a caution.

Jennythenipper said...

Lolita: I've been cogitating on this a while and I think its demographics. At the time he was playing these Brits it was when America was just getting into the war. Many of Hollywood's ex-pat Brits went home to make films there or to be in the army. Cary Grant was one who stayed but he was on the cusp of being too old to serve in the army anyway. He worked for the British Secret Service in Hollywood, spying on suspected Fifth Columnists. When he was in movies, he played Americans during that time. I don't think he really wanted people to think of him as a Brit, and he controlled his image ruthlessly at that time. So there were a lot of parts for Englishmen, and suddenly fewer Englishmen to play them.

In England the opposite was true. With America's involvement in the war, there were a lot of parts for Americans, but none there to play them. How else can you explain Olivier miscast as a Canadian fur trapper in the 49th Parallel.

Jennythenipper said...
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Rupert Pupkin said...
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